For 72 hours, Iranian government and media stuck with the same talking points about the crash until the evidence overwhelmed them
In the wake of a Ukrainian commercial jet crashing into suburban Tehran on the morning of January 8, speculation as to the cause of the crash reached a fever pitch as evidence piled up strongly suggesting the plane was accidentally shot down by an Iranian missile. In the 72 hours following the incident, the Iranian government and its highly coordinated media apparatus remained steadfast in their insistence that the government had not shot the plane down, essentially circling the wagons in a disinformation campaign to prevent any domestic backlash, until the evidence was so overwhelming they had no choice but to acknowledge it.
The so-called fog of war is always a challenge to navigate during an emergent breaking news story, particularly when originating from a more closed information environment like Iran, where the government and media work hand-in-hand to control messaging to domestic and international audiences. As the regime maintains strict control over the country’s internet, domestic audiences in particular are maximally exposed to its messaging with few, if any, alternative narratives breaking through.
With its decades of experience controlling domestic media messaging, Iran often employs rhetorical strategies that complement its disinformation efforts. Both on air and online, they utilize frequent examples of what the DFRLab often refers to as the four D’s of disinformation: dismiss, distort, distract, and dismay. As will be seen below, at least two of these rhetorical devices — dismiss and distract — were actively employed by the regime in response to the crash.
This convoluted information dynamic was further complicated by the series of events over the first week of 2020, from the Trump Administration’s successful drone strike killing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani on January 3 to Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes on U.S. forces in Iraq in the early morning hours of January 8. Both events, combined with non-stop bellicose rhetoric on both sides in the intervening days and an authentically global conversation driven by heated sentiment, created a recipe for chaos in the skies above Tehran — and from the regime’s subsequent attempt to deny the crash was its fault.
Iranian media deny claims of a shootdown
The initial facts were clear enough: on the morning of January 8, Ukrainian International Airlines flight 752 crashed soon after its pre-dawn takeoff from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. Online reports from flight monitoring services such as FlightRadar24 showed its transponder disappearing from radar around 6:14 a.m. local time over the city of Parand at a height of 8,000 feet; soon reports from the ground confirmed that the plane had crashed nearby.
Despite the fact that the IRGC had conducted a missile strike on U.S. forces in Iraq that very night, early assessments by both Iran and Ukraine pointed to the crash being mechanical in nature — in other words, a horrible coincidence. By the afternoon of January 9, however, this assumption was pushed aside as U.S. officials began telling domestic media outlets that their assessments were now pointing to an accidental missile strike by Iran, based on analysis of satellite data that detected missile launches, communication intercepts, and other closed sources. Also on the afternoon of January 9, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced similar conclusions in a press conference — many of the crash victims were Canadian citizens.
Meanwhile, open-source analysis conducted by the New York Times reported that eyewitness video footage recorded on the ground near Parand, while Bellingcat geolocated the exact position where the footage was filmed.
— Bellingcat (@bellingcat) January 9, 2020
From the start, though, Iranian state media strenuously denied an accidental missile strike. An early report from the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency on the morning of January 8 acknowledged the crash but expressed skepticism of anything other than a technical failure.
“It’s believed to be due to a technical failure by the Boeing 737 aircraft,” it said. Fars continued to post updates throughout the morning, reiterating the likelihood of technical issues and referencing “design problems at Boeing,” mentioning the airline manufacture yet again to distract audiences away from other potential scenarios, including a shootdown.
Meanwhile, several hours after the crash, the state-funded Iran Student News Agency (ISNA) published a lead story claiming the plane had gone down “due to engine failure,” adding, “According to the reports, technical problems caused the crash.” They also cited an AP interview with an Iranian Civil Aviation spokesman and noted that condolences had been received from Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky.
The Mehr News Agency, a service of the Islamic Ideology Dissemination Organization, reported on a state TV statement by Iran Civil Aviation Authority head Ali Abedzadeh, who brushed off accusations of an accidental missile strike in a classic case of dismissive rhetoric. “The air routes are all international,” he said. “There were eight or nine flights at the moment of the event, with tens of planes flying at an altitude of 10,000 feet. So how is it possible that an airplane at 8,000 feet could be hit by missiles?”
“Scientifically, it’s impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane, and such rumors are illogical,” he added without any explanation.
As speculation of a missile strike increased on January 9, IRNA, the official news agency of the Islamic Republic, published an interview with Hassan Rezaifar, who had been appointed to run the accident commission. “The issue of the Ukrainian plane crash due to a missile strike or other defensive action was investigated at a special meeting and dismissed.” (Note that he even used the word dismiss directly in his messaging.) The article continued, “Rezaeifar emphasized that the cause of the crash was more likely due to a technical issue rather than a terrorist or security-related issue.” He also rejected still-unconfirmed photos circulating online showing what appeared to be missile parts on the ground. “No missile was found at the scene,” he insisted.
A subsequent story from ISNA extensively quoted Rezaeifar’s remarks. “We do not have any evidence of what took place thus far,” he said. “However, once we do, we will be better situated to present facts to the media, rather than rumors.” He continued: “Rumors that an act of terrorism has occurred or of the plane being shot down are untrue. There seems to have been a technical failure. There are external outlets that suggest they plane exploded in the sky, but this is also untrue… the aircrafts technical failure led to a fire, causing disruption to its communication and control systems, and crashed.”
Around 1:00 a.m. Tehran time on January 10, not long after Prime Minister Trudeau’s statement and open-source analysis pointing to the increased likelihood of a missile strike, IRNA tweeted a link from the Iranian government reiterating its denial and dismissing official U.S. assessments.
— IRNA News Agency (@IrnaEnglish) January 9, 2020
“Today, in a very well-calculated move in psychological operations as quoted by an informed source from the Pentagon who spoke on condition of anonymity has published news pompously that two missiles hit the Ukrainian plane,” the statement read. “This is a lie and nobody will claim responsibility of the big lie… It is regrettable that the U.S. government’s psychological operations system and its informed or uninformed allies are adding salt to the pains of the bereaved families with these lies and victimize affected families to reach their goals in the psychological operations.” The statement was also published by Fars News.
What about airline safety in the United States and elsewhere…
As January 10 went on, Iranian media began to coalesce around a new tactic of distraction— shifting the conversation to airline safety in the United States and other western countries through infographics optimized for social media.
Around noon Tehran time, IRNA posted a tweet saying that the Boeing 737 model involved in the crash had experienced five fatal accidents in the past, with the hashtag #بوئینگ_اوکراینی (“Ukrainian_Boeing”), further implying the plane manufacturer’s role in the crash. The infographic walked audiences through 737 “most important engine problems,” including what it describes as fuel flow problems, engine separation, and extreme weather impacts.
— خبرگزاری ایرنا (@IRNA_1313) January 10, 2020
A second infographic making the rounds on social media was published four hours later by Farda News, an independent Iranian outlet affiliated with conservative politician Mohameed Bagher Ghalibaf. Its infographic took a different tack, focusing on airline safety records by country, listing the United States, Russia, and Brazil as the countries with the most plane crashes. Iran, meanwhile, is not on the list. It displays the stats with blue rows representing the number of crashes and purple rows representing the casualties.
IRNA and Farda also took a parallel approach with their online publishing, both posting so-called “listicles” refuting why the crash could have been a missile strike. IRNA’s story, “Seven Reasons to Lie that a Missile Hit the Ukrainian Aircraft,” claims that the consensus shifted because of rumors circulating in “cyberspace” that Iranian defensive measures felled the crash, leading to misinformation being spread by Newsweek and Canada’s CBC News. The article adopted an open-source digital forensics approach, citing eyewitness media footage of the plane going down and the crash site, despite the fact that the same footage had been used by open-source researchers at the New York Times, Bellingcat, and elsewhere to demonstrate exactly the opposite.
Meanwhile, on the Farda website, an article entitled “Five Reasons to Refute a Missile Striking the Ukrainian Aircraft” stated that there are “plausible, specific, and expert reasons” to refute the claim. It noted that Western media have focused on an alleged missile strike “for hours” despite Iran’s Civil Aviation Authority considering it “scientifically impossible.” It also quoted an Iranian pilot, “Captain Shahbazi,” who told them, “With my 35 years of flying experience, I can say the scenario of the crash of the Ukraine being caused by a missile is wrong.” In other words, more dismissal. Farda then walked through previous claims by the Civil Aviation Authority and other Iranian sources before making its own conclusion: “Those who have the slightest knowledge of how defense systems operated clearly know how illogical these claims are of the defense system could have attacked a passenger plane legally flying in the sky from the airport.”
Finally, a confession
Despite Iran’s best efforts to cover up the cause of the crash, a combination of mounting evidence and international outrage ultimately overwhelmed its ability to stick to its story. On the morning of January 11 Tehran time, a little more than 72 hours after after the incident, the country’s government acknowledged what was by that time the worst-kept secret in the world. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif admitted the plane was shot down due to “human error” but still attempted to divert blame from the nation’s armed forces by chalking it up to “US adventurism.”
A sad day. Preliminary conclusions of internal investigation by Armed Forces:
Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster
Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 11, 2020
Approximately 35 minutes later, President Hassan Rouhani admitted that the plane was destroyed by what he described as an “unforgivable mistake.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake.
My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families. I offer my sincerest condolences. https://t.co/4dkePxupzm
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) January 11, 2020
Given the fact that government and media sources had aggressively denied this over the previous three days, they now had the additional challenge of explaining why. Their answer: everyone who was involved in making public statements following the crash simply did not know any better.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei defended himself and other spokesman, claiming that their comments were, as IRNA put it, “rooted in ignorance.”
“Our statements at the time [after the crash] took place during the height of American psychological warfare against the Iranian nation; it was based on that and the information available at the moment. Additionally, it can be said that these statements were based on uninformed analysis, or rather, the issue is that those making comments were not properly informed.”
Rabiei continued by laying some of the blame on national grief due to the U.S. killing of the Al Quds Force commander. “In the past week, we were mourning the loss of our martyred General Qasem Soleimani, only to be confronted with more devastating news: the accident crash of the Ukrainian airplane, and the subsequent deaths of 176 passengers, most of which were Iranians, as well as others — it was deeply upsetting. What became more devastating was hearing, three days after, that the airplane was mistakenly shot down by us.”
Rabiei also offered cover for President Rouhani, saying, “I can say with certainty the president as head of the supreme national security council did not know about the incident until Friday afternoon.”
“The truth is, we didn’t lie,” he added. “A lie means a deliberate fabrication of reality. This isn’t what happened at all.”
Andy Carvin is Senior Fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Washington, DC.
Special thanks to the Atlantic Council’s Masoud Mostajabi and additional native Farsi-speaking volunteers for their assistance with translations. Additional translations were conducted by cross-referencing multiple online translation tools with coverage by international news outlets.
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